District attorney vows to enforce law ahead of NC tribal dispensary opening

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A potential showdown between law enforcement and a Native American tribe is brewing in North Carolina, where a district attorney has vowed “to enforce state law” once the state’s first cannabis dispensary opens later this month.

The grand opening of the Great Smoky Cannabis Co., operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) on their 57,000-acre Qualla Boundary west of Asheville, is scheduled for April 20.

It will be the first and only dispensary in North Carolina, where neither medical nor adult-use cannabis is legal.

Once sales begin, state law will continue to be enforced outside of tribal boundaries, District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch said in an April 3 statement, according to the Asheville Citizen Times.

“We do not pick certain laws to enforce and ignore others,” the statement read.

“We respect tribal sovereignty, and we respect the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ right to enact tribal laws,” it continued.

“In North Carolina, the cultivation, distribution and possession of marijuana remains illegal, and we will continue to enforce state law off Qualla Boundary.”

Exactly what Welch plans to do is unclear.

North Carolina is one of only 10 states without access to adult-use or medical marijuana.

However, sovereign Indian nations have launched legal cannabis programs on tribal land throughout the country.

The ECBI legalized medical marijuana in 2021, and tribal members voted to approve adult-use legalization last year.

The Great Smoky Cannabis Co. will be a medical dispensary, as the tribe has yet to set up regulations for adult-use.

However, all North Carolina residents age 21 and older are eligible to apply for medical marijuana patient cards, the tribe has said.

Welch’s statement follows a letter North Carolina’s two U.S. senators sent to federal and state law enforcement officials demanding to know “what measures your departments and agencies are taking to uphold current federal and state laws.”

The letter, which tribal leaders called “inflammatory,” implied marijuana sales jeopardized public safety.